Every culture has something about them that others use to stereotype them. The Irish drink, the Italians have hot tempers, etc. For some reason, the French have been given given the label that they are rude. I don’t know where this stereotype has come from, but whenever I’ve been to France, I’ve never found them to be rude. In fact, I’d have to say that my experience has been quite the opposite. I found the French to be very hospitable. Being from Louisiana, with it’s rich French influenced history, I used to say that I found France to be the birthplace of Southern Hospitality. However there was one notable exception and I used to like to tell this story from time to time, well that is until I became the punch line of my own story.
My first time travelling in France was back in 1990. I had just graduated from LSU and a buddy of mine and I decided to take our bikes and ride through Europe. We started in Ireland and made our way through Wales, England, Scotland and Belgium and after two months we were in Paris. Both of us were new to bicycle touring and extended travel and as a result we were together most of the time. Spend two months with someone 24 hours a day you really get to know them, wether you like it or not. 😛 So by the time we hit Paris, I had had about enough of my companion and I was ready to go solo. Well, I can’t say that I was ready to go solo, but I was ready to get away from my cycling partner to say the least.
The actual idea of traveling solo scared the hell out of me. For starters, I don’t speak any secondary languages and I was traveling in foreign counties. Add to that the fact that travelling by bicycle has it’s share of ups and downs. Things break and need repairing and it can be a life saver to have someone along that can help you through those times. Lastly, travelling alone is scary. There’s a sense of protection when you travel with someone else, so going it alone can be daunting. “What if someone tries to beat me up?” “What if someone steals my stuff?” “What if those guys from Easy Rider show up in their pickup truck?” All these thoughts and more raced through my mind as I made the decision to continue riding solo.
To help me through this “crisis”, I did what any self-respecting 23 year-old person would do – I called my mommy. In an all glass phone booth next to the river Seine, I called home and talked through all the issues surrounding this big decision I was trying to make. My Mom was a real help as she gave me all the support I needed even though it was 5:30am for her when I called. 🙂
As we weighed through all the options, a man approached the phone booth and tapped on the door. I looked back at the nicely dressed man, smiled, made the OK sign and turned back to the call to sign off. “Ok Mom, there’s a guy needing to use the phone, so I have to go, but do you think I’m making the right decision? I mean what if…” Tap Tap Tap The guy in the nice suit tapped at the glass again. This time I made the OK sign and in my best French accent said “Ok, International. Une moment (one moment)”, made the OK sign one more time and then attempted to get off the phone. “Ok Mom, I’ve really got to get off the phone. I love you and I’ll call you tomorrow and let you know what…” Suddenly, the nicely dressed man opens the door to the phone booth, reaches in, pushes me aside, slaps down on the hook with two fingers and hangs up the call.
[ P A U S E ]
Before I go any further, I should explain that I’m not much of a fighter. For most of my life I was the small, weak little kid that all the other guys used to pick on. In fact, my travelling buddy was none other that the bully of my Elementary school. I had never been in a fist fight, or ever really been tested up until this point. I had reached one belt degree in Karate one year, played a lot of soccer and even wrestled for two years back in High School (albeit in the 98lb classification), but I had never truly been in a fight.
Why is this important? Well, at our most basic level there are three things that guys are expected to do. 1) Hunt, 2) Reproduce and 3) Defend your territory, property, loved ones, etc. I may be at the DNA level, but if you really think about it, it’s true. Most women and looking for a mate that can provide security by providing an income and a safe place to live. Granted, nowadays it’s not like we’re being invaded by Mongols every day, but the expectation is still there.
At this point in my life, I had never been in a fight and thus that part of me had never been tested. There was this unknown element sitting dormant in the back of my psyche. Was I Sampson, or a sycophant? Would I stand my ground, or would I beg for mercy with my tail between my legs? You like to think that you’d be as tough as the Terminator, but until you’re tested, you never really know.
Here I am being shoved around during a very stressful time in my life. I’m already in crisis before this guy shows up and totally shatters my image that the French are not rude. I’m at a fragile point in my life and clearly I’m being tested. How would I react? Would this question that has been tugging at my definition of being a man finally be answered?
Was I even thinking these thoughts at that moment? Of course not. This little pause is nothing more than dramatic license to pump up the story. 🙂 Sure I had entertained these thoughts and what not, but my purpose in telling you all this is just to explain where I was emotionally and psychologically when this very physical act took place. In reality, I was thinking none of these thoughts at that moment. At that very moment a far more basic response had taken over – rage.
[ R E S U M E ]
For a brief moment, I was caught flat footed and completely off-guard. I was stunned that someone would be that rude and that physical over someone in a phone booth. Normally when you’re that flabbergasted you don’t know how to respond and it’s only later that it sinks in what happened and then you wish you’re reacted differently. Luckily I rebounded quickly.
Holding the dead receiver in one hand I turned to look at my assailant. He was yelling at me in French, but even if he were yelling in English, I wouldn’t have heard a word. He was half way inside the phone booth having pushed me to the far corner and reading me the riot act. With the invasion to my personal space and the overt act of hanging up my call, my shock instantly turned to anger.
With both hands I shoved my assailant out of the phone booth. I wasn’t thinking, I was reacting. The nicely dressed man went sailing out of the phone booth. He landed in the street and business cards went everywhere. He was flat on his back and with momentum causing him to skid to a stop, I know that I ruined his suit. He instantly scrambled to his feet and started rushing back towards me. Suddenly I realized that I was trapped in the phone booth, so as the nicely dressed man rushed me, I took a powerful step forward and reached my right arm back to throw a punch. I was coming out of the booth swinging.
I don’t know if I made any noise when I stepped out of the booth, or if I just had a certain look or what, but before I could make contact with this man’s face, he instantly cowered. Putting up both hands in the universal sign of “don’t hurt me” he mumbled something in French. For the second time in just a few seconds, I was caught off guard. This was a totally new experience for me and I was a little unsure as to how to react. I didn’t have the urge to hit the nicely dressed man anymore. I was now safely out of the coffin like phone booth, but I was still angry so as I collected my thoughts, I paced around him a few steps just to make sure the fight was truly over and then turned and walked away.
My bicycle was locked up to a poll across the way about 20 yards from the phone booth. I walked to my bike and unlocked it. The entire time I’m sifting through the pages in my mind of what just happened. This entire experience was totally new to me and I kept looking at the evidence over and over in my mind. I was checking to see if I had done anything overt to cause this to happen. I mean I told the guy “OK” several times. I wasn’t rude, so WTF?
With my bicycle unlocked, I walked back to the phone booth. I was still very angry and I thought I was letting the nicely dressed man off just a little too easy. As I reached the booth, I leaned my bicycle against a bench and took the last few steps. I flung open the doors and in a slow and deliberate manner I shoved the Frenchman in to far corner of the phone booth with my left hand and in another overly deliberate move, hung up the phone. The nicely dressed man didn’t offer up one iota of resistance or protest. Then with a “take that” type of look and gesture, I released the man and stepped back. Since I don’t speak French, I flipped him the bird and then used every International gesture I could think of to make sure he understood what “flipping the bird” meant.
I’m a little bit embarrassed by this story and I don’t tell it very often. It takes a very unique set of circumstances for this story to be appropriate and also funny to bring it up in a conversation. I’m not really known as a “tough guy” so a lot of the humor comes from just that fact. It’s the juxtaposition of seeing me actually try and be that tough that makes it funny. It’s my “I found the one rude guy in France” story and I usually tell other stories after that about how families took me in, or other acts of kindness that I found while traveling in France. Of course there’s a little bit of excitement and adventure mixed in, so it is kind of fun to tell. Well, at least it used to be.
Fast forward five to seven years. I had continued my bicycle tour for another 4 months, all solo, and had the time of my life. I’m back in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and I married my college sweetheart. I’m sharing a single malt scotch with my good friends Chris LaFleur, Ken Duffy and Ken Harelson. Harelson has just returned from Europe and is recounting his stories, much like I did when I returned from Europe. His stories are a little bit different because he was part of a tour group, but there just as good.
His group was comprised of other graduates from the accelerated MBA program at LSU. It’s quite expensive, but it’s condensed and tailored around someone who is already in the business world. One of the selling points is that after you graduate, your class goes to Europe on a business trip. Although there’s a lot of free time, he was able to see how some European businesses are run and it was a nice mix of business and pleasure.
The trip took them through several countries and the last country was France. As Ken recounts “what happened next”, his audience of close friends are kicked back sipping there Scotch and enjoying their cigars. Nothing quite like swapping stories amongst your buddies. 🙂 Harelson is explaining about this incredible dinner they had and almost as a side note, he explains this funny little bit of trivia,
As everyone laughed at how the meanings of that gesture mean something completely different to another culture, I was instantly brought back to that phone booth next to the river Seine. It was as if I was watching a movie. The memory of that event quickly played back in my mind. The sound was muted but I saw everything that happened from a third person perspective. Then I rewound the memory again, but this time, I zoomed in on what I was doing in the booth. In slow motion I stood outside the booth and looked at myself and the gestures that I made to the nicely dressed man. Everyone was still giggling when in a completely deadpan tone I exclaimed, “Oh no.” :O
My drinking buddies turned to me and and wanted to know what was wrong. What was the cause for such alarm? Everyone had already heard my story, more than once I’m sure, yet I told it again but this time I was telling it as if I had just remembered the story and not all of the elements were clear. I was fishing for details as I looked from side-to-side, not really looking at anyone in particular.
That’s right, you guessed it! When I was in the phone booth I told the guy I was getting off the phone and gestured “OK” to him. The only problem was that he didn’t interpret it as ok. Instead, what he heard was “International, une moment (asshole)”, all the while I’m grinning like a fool. I must have called him an asshole at least three times.
Of course all my friends in the bar erupted in laughter. Suddenly I had become the punch line in my own story. No longer was I the hero of this adventuresome tale, but the antagonist. He wasn’t the rude Frenchman, I was the rude American. To add insult to injury, I had also pushed this guy around like I was some kind of hoodlum. What this guy must have thought and for all these years I thought I was was under the impression that I had been the one who was slighted. All I could do at that moment was hang my head in shame and laugh.
I don’t tell this story much anymore for reasons that seem quite apparent I’m sure. It used to be that I needed to be in a conversation and have the topic turn to “this one time I was tough”, which is a fairly rare occasion in and of itself. Now I have to wait for a conversation about “this one time I was tough AND an idiot.” 😛